As the food trend spreads, its impact and limitations on actual, real-life farms and farming communities becomes more visible.
The farm-to-table movement isn’t really about final dishes. “We aren’t just shoving tasty stuff into our faces,” Heather Havrilesky argued at the Baffler.”We’re embracing and supporting some down-to-earth farmer we might count as a kind of a neighbor.” Farm-to-table rhetoric imagines fixing the food economy and ecosystem of food production in order to invest in local communities.
But for all that talk about farms, the movement retains a distinctly urban focus. “Farms tend to be where farm-to-table restaurants aren’t,” Laura Reiley explained, paraphrasing a shepherd in her acclaimed “Farm to Fable” series for the Tampa Bay Times. The farmers we imagine aren’t likely to be our neighbors, Havrilesky wrote, unless we’re willing “to live in a place with only a Pizza Hut and an Australian-themed steakhouse within 20 square miles.”
A few rural areas are offering another possibility. Farm-to-table is becoming ever more mainstream. And as it spreads, its impact on actual, real-life farms and farming communities becomes more visible—as do its limitations.
In Saxapahaw, North Carolina, for instance, you’ll find an old mill village whose mill closed twenty years ago. “It was on its way to becoming a dead place,” Mac Jordan, whose family owned the mill, tells me. “When the mill closed, that pretty much ended the entire economy of Saxapahaw.” Most of the local family farms surrounding the mill ceased production, Jordan says.
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Things have certainly changed in the past ten years. Jordan spearheaded an effort to recreate the 1,600-person village as “what it used to be: a self-sustaining, vibrant economy.” To do so, he renovated the abandoned mill and the surrounding houses his family owned into apartments and rental cottages. A few of the families who moved into the apartments joined Jordan as partners, adding condos, a general store serving food praised by the New York Times, a brewery, a butcher shop, a pub, and a ballroom to the complex.
But Saxapahaw’s idyllic, rural community was one of its major assets, so Jordan and his partners knew they needed to preserve it. And that meant working with farmers. “Fortunately,” Jordan said, “others that believe in our vision for the future bought the farms surrounding the village.”
Working with the village’s new businesses, the local farmers were able to create an economically viable farming model. Cane Creek Farm formed a partnership with Left Bank Butchery, providing a dependable outlet for whole animal sales, “the only thing that meets the bottom line,” according to the farm’s owner, Eliza MacLean. It’s also something that helps Left Bank, which can simply point across the road when customers ask about sourcing, giving the perfect farm-to-table story.
Tony Gaddis, spurred into farming after reading a Michael Pollan book, has also found success with TerraStay, the farm he opened in 2008. Gaddis uses a labor-intensive, high-revenue-per-acre business model, planting densely, using high tunnels to ensure he can grow throughout all four seasons, and selling his produce as an upscale good. He was also able to partner with many of his neighboring farms to form a cooperative that cuts the cost of bringing their goods to market, allowing them to create a dependable supply for restaurants and solidifying their revenue stream.
The restaurants are committed, as well. According to owner Claire Haslam, the Eddy Pub paid $115,000 directly to farmers in 2015. She emphasized that “directly” means they met, physically, with the farmer to buy the goods, and added that the Eddy spent another $80,000 at local food hubs (similar to Gaddis’s).
These developments have garnered effusive praise from the New York Times,Washington Post, and others. Winston-Salem Monthly even called Saxapahaw “an oasis, quenching the thirst of community members and travelers searching for something more.” Anne Meletzke, the executive director of the community health organization Healthy Adamance, says Saxapahaw’s partnerships display a model for others. “It shows other municipalities what they can do with the resources they have to create the same sense of community,” she tells me.
But as stunning as Saxapahaw’s turnaround is, it’s worth asking whether it actually provides a replicable model, and who, exactly, benefits. Tiny and often referred to as “the middle of nowhere,” Saxapahaw is still within 40 minutes of the Triangle and the Triad—two of North Carolina’s biggest urban areas.
“The Triangle is an interesting area,” farm organizer Kavita Koppa tells me. “You have the combination of a lot of new farmers who are excited, a relatively rising retail market for locally produced goods, and incredibly high land prices. It caters well to—and I hesitate to use this phrase, but I’m not sure how else to say it—a high class of farmer.” She adds, “Most of them didn’t inherit a farm, they came here and purchased land, whether five years ago or forty. That lends itself to a different kind of person.” That includes Gaddis, who has a successful career in the startup world, and MacLean, who came to farming after careers in veterinary medicine and environmental toxicology.
The proximity to urban areas provides additional advantages, too. According to Koppa, transportation costs are one of the largest farming expenses, not only because of the fuel and travel time, but because of the investment cost in technology, like refrigerated trucks, necessary to maintain their product’s quality during transport. But Kevin Meehan, owner of Saxapahaw’s Turtle Run Farm, tells me his transportation costs are negligible—he just makes the simple 20-minute drive to the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, one of the most established markets in the Triangle, where he makes “99 percent” of his revenue. MacLean also recently held a barnraiser to move her farm into the center of Saxapahaw, saying that saving fifteen minutes on her deliveries saves her $15,000 a year.
The rest of the town has been shaped by its proximity to urban centers as well. When Haslam and her partner Doug Williams opened the Eddy Pub, they thought they would have to “bus in cool, interesting staff from Carrboro or Chapel Hill,” even going so far as to buy an actual bus. “But the cool staff ended up moving out here,” she said. “And they purchased homes because homes were a little bit less expensive, or they live in the apartments.”
Jordan says the people who seem most attracted to the projects seem to be the “professionals and grad students from Chapel Hill” who started moving to Saxapahaw in the mid-’80s, and who have since set down roots. Because it’s been so successful at creating an intentional community, the benefits of Saxapahaw’s idyllic rural living may disproportionately go to those hailing from nearby urban areas.
But if the distribution of farm-to-table’s benefits is a question in Saxapahaw, it’s even more pressing in Kinston, a city of 20,000 located in the heart of North Carolina’s tobacco country, 90 minutes east of Raleigh.
Kinston is most famous for two things: Chef and the Farmer—an acclaimed fine-dining restaurant whose entrees run about $30—and poverty. A report from the University of North Carolina’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies named one Kinston neighborhood the most distressed tract in the state, based on unemployment rates and income, and another was in the top ten for rural areas. A third of the city is below the poverty line. “It weighs on you,” Benjamin Knight, one of Chef and the Farmer’s owners, tells me.
Knight and his wife, chef Vivian Howard, opened the restaurant in 2006, “with the hope that our restaurant might light a spark in our little town and help transition some of Eastern Carolina’s displaced tobacco farmers into food farmers,” as Howard’s website phrases it. And there has certainly been more development: Howard and Knight have since opened a second restaurant and a wine shop, and have become the focal point of A Chef’s Life, a documentary about their business. Others have since opened restaurants, a brewery, and a boutique hotel, and, nowadays, publications like Saveur are calling Kinston “the South’s next great food town.”
And that brings us to the community investment farm-to-table advocates focus on. Chef and the Farmer spent $238,000 on local food last year. The vast majority of it was paid for by tourists, too: according to data Knight provided, a staggering 90 percent of their customers are from out of town, and 80 percent of them are from a different area code. Chef and the Farmer, then, is bringing an influx of cash into the local economy.
But that cash may not spread throughout the community evenly. On the one hand, Koppa, the farm organizer, tells me that it’s farmers who already have connections to the restaurant industry, or the resources and expertise to market themselves, that tend to get restaurant customers like Chef and the Farmer, especially because it’s typically farmers who connect with chefs, not the other way around. However, Koppa also says there’s a “growing activity around farm-to-table in rural areas that is grounded in the cultural context it’s coming out of.” Part of this trend includes black farmers returning to their family’s land to produce once again, especially in eastern North Carolina. Insofar as farm-to-table’s emphasis on local food is inspiring these new farmers, it’s driving demand and helping to create new markets in places that have historically been underserved by the farming economy—even in places that don’t attract urban consumers.
Within the city limits, Chef and the Farmer is also creating well-paid service jobs where there weren’t any. However, Knight told me their staff is the “racial inverse” of the community, consisting of mostly white employees while the town is only 28 percent white. In Kinston, poverty is drawn along racial lines, affecting 16 percent of whites and 40 percent of African Americans. It seems as if the jobs farm-to-table creates aren’t going to the segments of the community that need them most.
“Farm-to-table “is like the Kardashians: there’s not really anything there, but it sure gets a hell of a lot of press.”
It’s the lack of concrete economic benefit for the poor that led Lance Barton, the eastern regional director of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, to tell me that farm-to-table “is like the Kardashians: there’s not really anything there, but it sure gets a hell of a lot of press.” Barton admits, however, that the press farm-to-table garners does has real value, even citing Chef and the Farmer as particularly effective agents for his hunger relief efforts. Knight admitted something similar, saying the biggest impact Chef and the Farmer has was changing “the perception the community has of itself.”
But, private businesses—like Chef and the Farmer, Jordan’s real estate company, and Saxapahaw’s farmers—must work within already existing conditions, like generational inequality and land prices in order to create an economically viable business model for themselves. “I’m not sure I feel responsible,” for ensuring the economic impact is shared equally, Knight tells me. Some of the businesses’ effects, both concrete and perceived, function along those lines, leaving out sections of the community already harmed by those conditions.
The successes in Saxapahaw and Kinston are as undeniable as they are laudable, but that does not mean they meet farm-to-table’s more ambitious claims of investing in the entire community. Perhaps there is some model—like the nonprofit Benevolence Farm, near Saxapahaw, which employs women recently released from prison—that provides viability while ensuring more equitable investment. But the lesson of Saxapahaw and Kinston seems to be that farm-to-table, no matter how idealistic, is not yet able to create the community change it promises—not for the entire community, anyway.
This feature originally appeared in Citylab.